Author: Mahen Bala
A forest remembers no beginning, follows no morals, worships no God. Trees fall and sprout anew, rivers flood and dry out, animals kill and then themselves die; all part of a perpetual state of unguided renewal.
Churning itself anew for more than 130 million years, Taman Negara is a 4,343 square kilometre patch of pristine tropical rainforest stretching over Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu. Its main entry point is Kuala Tembeling, where visitors can register for tours and accommodation, or shop for last minute supplies.
The vast expanse of the muddy green Tembeling River forms a natural boundary between the park and the rest of Pahang. As I cruise upriver to the forest home of the Batek Orang Asli tribe, Taman Negara is on my left. On my right is a seemingly endless stretch of resorts and chalets.
I pour a handful of the chilly river water on my feet, a brief respite from the heat. The boat’s hull tears through the reflection of towering giants on the river’s face. I am travelling with a small crew to photograph and film a documentary, accompanied by Nurul Fatanah, a scholar who has worked with the Batek for over a decade.
Soon, we arrive at an Orang Asli settlement. I wave at the children standing by the river but they don’t wave back. We sit down on the forest floor to converse with Sena, one of the Batek elders.
In a poor attempt to understand the mechanics of this invisible world, I begin by asking Sena the impossible — to explain the phrase cēb bah hēp. Literally, it means ‘to enter the forest’. But, in truth, the phrase connotes so much more. It is the very essence of the Batek. I struggle to keep notes as he speaks in Batek and occasionally Malay to make sure I understand him.
“We have always been here. Us, our ancestors, and those before them. The forest gives us everything we need. When we need food, we enter the forest. It is the same when we need medicine. When we need to bury the dead.” he explains.
Soul Of The Batek
To be Batek is to be one with the forest. The tribe are Negritos, the earliest Orang Asli to arrive in the peninsular about 25,000 years ago. Today, they are among the last remaining nomadic hunter-gatherers in the world and there remain only about 1,500 of them, scattered across the interior of Pahang and Kelantan,
They identify themselves spatially within ecological niches and relative to other groups and tribes, each with their own distinct language, customs and history. There is no ‘I, me or we’ in their language; only ‘Batek’ is used to identify themselves in conversations with outsiders. They do not imagine the land as a space contained within imaginary lines of authority, but as a landscape of communal memory, shaped by individual encounters with ancient trees, wild beasts, and unique geographical formations.
The Batek ‘bury’ their dead on trees, so the soul rises to heaven easily. They eat only what they need — which the forest provides. And, there is always enough for the entire village. They move with the seasons, living off an abundance of fruits during musim buah (fruiting season), and collect honey during musim bunga (flowering season). They name their children after flowers, trees, fruits, animals, and the elements.
They don’t argue or fight, and instead defuse arguments by having either party (or both of them) leave the settlement for a short period. A hunted animal is not a prize or game, but sustenance provided by the forest and is treated with respect.
Their society is egalitarian; men and women bear equal responsibilities within a family unit. The children learn by helping their parents build a hayak (shelters) and forage for food, while the elders tell them stories and sing ancestral songs. The Batek do not claim land ownership, nor do they hold on to material possessions except a blowpipe for men and a bamboo comb for women.
Mid-way through our conversation, Sena smiles and announces my Batek name: ‘Chengal’.
Twilight of a Tribe
Here, I am not my father’s son but a part of the forest itself. The Batek way of life offers us an alternative way of imagining our relationship with the forest. The way we think about resources and consumption. The way we imagine ecosystems and our position in it. A social system not yet corrupted by capitalism, greed and the reckless exploitation of human and natural resources, but instead being in a natural state of balance with the environment.
But things are very quickly changing. The Batek, like the rainforests of Malaysia, exist in the long shadow of the past, within a chaotic present — and without a future. To enter the forest today is to be confronted with the chainsaws of loggers and the shotguns of illegal poachers.
Deforestation and socioeconomic pressures continue to push the Batek away from the forest, and into mainstream society. The Kelantan state government believes they should leave the forest, embrace Islam, get a job, and settle down permanently.
“I used to be in the forest all the time. These days I rarely go in. It is dangerous. Now we just sit here (in the kampung). To live outside of the forest… is like living in a dream,” says Sena, in weary resignation. What else can he or the Batek possibly do?
This ‘kampung’ is little more than a temporary scattering of hayaks in an open clearing, shaded by a skirting of ancient trees. Women and children huddle together in the shade to escape the sun, while men wait for the boats to arrive.
The kampung is a favourite stop for tourists hoping for an adventure into the deep unknown. They hope for an encounter with an unfamiliar ‘other’ playing out like a scene from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ — some probably half expect to find Kurtz in one of hayak. Instead they find families huddled together in the shade to escape the scorching sun.
Visitors, domestic and international, come bearing gifts: bags of rice, bread, junk food, biscuits, and even plastic toys. The tour guides hire the Batek men to demonstrate the use of a blowpipe and to start a fire. Before leaving, the guides press folded banknotes into their palms.
And then, a brief silence before the next boat arrives.
Beginning of the End?
On my last morning with the Batek, I wake before sunrise. Standing at the edge of the river, I listen closely to the sound of time flowing by. Three hornbills glide across the river one after another and land on the highest branch of the tree in front of me. The first rays of morning pierce through the dark blue of dawn.
Just like the forest that sustains them, the Batek have no beginning and no written history, and I leave wondering if their end is near. As the boat begins its return journey downstream, I look back and wave at the children standing at the entrance of the kampung. A wave and a smile as a gift before they bolt, leaving only a trail of laughter behind.
This essay is the reflections of documentary filmmaker and photographer, Mahen Bala, who travelled to Taman Negara in February this year to record the Batek and their way of life.
Some of Mahen’s work can be seen at Cēb bah hēp, an ongoing photo exhibition at the Taman Tugu Nursery Trail in Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition is open daily from 7am – 6pm.
Entrance is free. This coming Sunday (14 July), there will be an open night between8pm – 9pm. where visitors can experience the forest trail and exhibition under the cover of darkness.
This project is part of Elders of Our Forest, a long-term multimedia initiative to document the Malaysian tropical rainforest.